“Intellectual Property,” Business Models and Product Design

Download: “Intellectual Property”: A Libertarian Critique

I. The Ethics of “Intellectual Property”
II. Privilege as Economic Irrationality
III. “Intellectual Property” and the Structure of the American Domestic Economy
IV. “Intellectual Property” and the Global Economy
V. “Intellectual Property,” Business Models and Product Design
VI. Is “Intellectual Property” a Necessary Incentive?

Earlier, we quoted Murray Rothbard’s observation that the enforcement of “intellectual property” rights requires the violation of genuine rights to tangible property. As Cory Doctorow argues, this becomes even more true given the business model required by proprietary digital information:

It’s funny that in the name of protecting “intellectual property,” big media companies are willing to do such violence to the idea of real property ­­ arguing that since everything we own, from our t­-shirts to our cars to our ebooks, embody someone’s copyright, patent and trademark, that we’re basically just tenant farmers, living on the land of our gracious masters who’ve seen fit to give us a lease on our homes. [75]

All-­pervasive DRM prevents the easy transfer of content between platforms, even when it’s simply a matter of the person who purchased a CD or DVD wanting to play it somewhere more convenient. And the DMCA legally prohibits circumventing such DRM, even when — again — the purchaser of the content simply wants to facilitate his own use on a wider and more convenient variety of platforms.

A good recent example of the phenomenon Doctorow commented on is the Amazon Kindle. If Amazon suspends a Kindle account (say, because the user returned too many books), the reader becomes an inert chunk of plastic suitable for use as a doorstop or paperweight. All those e-books already bought and paid for can no longer be read. If the reader falls afoul of Amazon’s good graces, they’ll disable his reader by remote and make the e-books he already “owns” utterly worthless. [76]

But to repeat once again, and for the last time, the laws on which the enforcement of this business model depends are becoming unenforceable, and the business model itself as a result untenable. According to the (probably hyperbolic) claim of Johan Pouwelse, a scholarly analyst of the P2P phenomenon, copyright will become unenforceable by 2010. If his assessment of the timeline is overly optimistic, his analysis of the causes of copyright’s obsolescence are on the mark. As file-sharing platforms become more popular, they are simultaneously becoming more robust and more secure. For a growing percentage of young people, all the industry admonitions that “file-sharing is theft” fall on deaf ears. Among those younger than thirty or so, file-sharing is simply something that people do, and will continue to do. Any attempt to change this cultural atmosphere will be a losing, rear-guard battle comparable to that faced by the Religious Right. At the same time, file-sharing networks are becoming increasingly user-friendly and attractive to mainstream participants.

Most important of all is the prospect of anonymity and security against the punitive efforts of the Copyright Nazis at MPAA and RIAA. According to Pouwelse,

By 2010 darknets should be able to offer the same performance as traditional P2P software by exploiting social networking,” the article reads, referring to networks that allow file trading whithout revealing the identity of its participants to outside entities. ? Just think what would happen if those 72,866 YouTube friends were able to share Hollywood movies within a P2P network that’s as easy to use as YouTube but untraceable by Hollywood. Pouwelse and his colleagues think it’s going to happen within the next two years. [77]


75. Cory Doctorow, “In the age of ebooks, you don’t own your library,” Boing Boing, March 23, 2008

76. Kevin Carson, “What This Country Needs is a Good Pirated Version of Kindle E-Books,” C4SS, May 1, 2009

77. Janko Roettgers, “BitTorrent Researcher: Copyright Will Be Obsolete by 2010,” New York Times, January 31, 2009

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